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OUT OF CONTEXT: To sleep, perchance to breathe; ay, there’s the snore

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

I recently found out that I don't sleep right.

Yeah, it surprised me too.

I've been sleeping — off and on — since I was … um … well, since I was born.

With all that practice, I was sure I could go pro. I knew I'd been doing it correctly all this time.

But I was wrong.

You see, I snore.

Now that might not seem like a big revelation. You might think that lots of people snore.

In fact, you might even think that you snore.

But you'd be wrong to think that you snore the way I snore.

Now that I think about it, "snore" is too common, too light a word to describe the sounds I make in my sleep.

Imagine a hundred food processors trying to puree concrete slabs in front of U2's sound system, and you begin to understand the sound and volume of my snoring.

I've snored so loudly that expectant mothers in my neighborhood have been jolted into labor.

I've snored so loudly that my neighbors have accused me of running a logging camp on my deck in the middle of the night.

I've snored so loudly that it's registered as a geological event on earthquake-detection equipment.

Yet it wasn't when I snored that I made my sleeping mistake. It was when I stopped snoring. Because I also stopped breathing.

I don't recall not breathing during sleep, probably because I was asleep. But my wife has told me she has had to nudge me to kick-start my breathing after a particularly long, loud, foundation-shaking snore.

(And I'm sure she paused for a moment — maybe two — just to appreciate the quiet before nudging me.)

I've snored for years, but my wife was worried about this not-breathing thing, so I told my doctor about it. She suggested that I have sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea, I've discovered, can lead to a variety of problems such as sleepiness, irritability, high blood pressure, heart disease, sunburn, flatulence, hair loss, color blindness, teen pregnancy, old age, socialism and paying too much for car insurance. (I think the first four are the really big problems.)

My doctor recommended that I undergo a sleep study.

I was skeptical. I knew that, at a sleep center, technicians would attach electrodes to my head, strap a heart monitor across my chest and tell me to go to sleep as usual while they watched me via a closed-circuit camera above my bed.

That doesn't sound like the prelude to a good night's sleep to me. ("Yeah, what I need to sleep like a baby is a bunch of wires sticking out of my head and a stranger standing over my bed watching me. Just like when I was a kid.")

Still, I went last month to a sleep center in Annapolis to take the test, and now I wished I had studied for it.

I was sure I had been awake the entire time, but the results showed I had been asleep for 319 minutes.

What's more, I had stopped breathing 48 times, averaging about 29 seconds each time. The longest interval was 40 seconds.

I was shocked, mostly because I can't hold my breath for 40 seconds when I'm awake. But when I'm asleep, I'm Aqua-Man!

What also shocked me was that not breathing 48 times during a night only rates as a mild case of sleep apnea.

Forty-eight times is only a MILD case? What do you have to do for a severe case — be awakened with defibrillator paddles? ("Charge to 300. Clear! SHZOOMF! Good morning, Mr. Bryant. Here's your coffee.")

The problem with not breathing when you sleep is that your brain wakes you up a little to make you start breathing again. Which is a relief, considering all the scientific, peer-reviewed studies that have shown a clear link between breathing and being alive.

But waking up to breathe does make for a long night. And a cranky morning.

Luckily, sleep scientists have developed machines that force air into your face to keep you from snoring.

They fit you with a mask, not unlike the one Hannibal Lecter wears to keep him from eating people in "The Silence of the Lambs," and the machine forces air into your nose.

It's scuba gear for bedtime!

I'll get fitted for one this week. It makes me wish I was back in school, because I'd be one of the cool kids with the Darth Vader bedtime respirator and night light. Can't wait for my first sleepover!

You can reach Carleton Bryant at 202/636-3218 and cbryant@washingtontimes.com — but only if you wake him slowly.